‘No child should have to go through this’: The lingering scars of Kenya’s post-election violence
- Birgit Schwarz
- 15 Feb 2016 09:48 (South Africa)
It has been eight years since post-election violence tore Kenya apart. There has been precious little punishment for the perpetrators, but the survivors live with the consequences of their altered lives every day. BIRGIT SCHWARZ meets one of them.
Jaqueline Mutere realized she was pregnant a few weeks after she had been brutally raped in the violence that convulsed Kenya after the disputed 2007 presidential elections. Her first thought was: “How do I get rid of this thing?” Eight years later, the child she did not want to bear is the apple of her eye. She named her Princess and talks about the fiercely independent girl with a mother’s unconcealed pride and joy. “She is a darling. Always out and about. All I have to invest is soap and water,” she said, laughing.
Jaqueline’s journey from self-loathing to joyful motherhood has been a long and arduous one. Thousands of women and girls who were sexually violated in those months between December 2007 and February 2008 -- gang raped, penetrated with guns, sticks, bottles, and other objects, stripped naked, beaten, stabbed and kicked – still bear the physical and emotional scars today, Human Rights Watch found after locating and interviewing 163 of the survivors. Many who became pregnant and were forced to give birth because of Kenya’s restrictive abortion laws cannot bring themselves to love or even hold those children.
The night of the attack, Jaqueline had been watching the news at home when she heard a knock on the door. The man at the door claimed to be a friend of her neighbor’s, and asked if he could come inside to take refuge. Well aware of the violence that had gripped the country, she let him in. When she realized that “he had no good intentions” it was too late. She tried to fight him off, but he was big and strong. He raped her in her sitting room, with her children sleeping in the room next door.
Jaqueline, who was 40 at the time and an HIV/AIDS community councilor, knew she had to see a doctor and report the rape. But the clinic was closed because of the unrest, and at the police station, nobody took any heed of what she had to say. “I knew that rape would not be taken seriously. But I wanted it recorded in the book at least.” It never was.
Jaqueline is no exception. Many sexual violence survivors who overcame stigma and other risks to seek redress reported that police failed to take their statements, and sent them back to their homes, often demanding they produce witnesses or the rapists themselves.
Jaqueline has made no further attempt to report the rape, although she knows the man’s name. “It never occurred to me. I felt too embarrassed, too humiliated.” Instead, she moved herself and her four children out of the house.
When Jaqueline felt her body change after the rape, she knew she was pregnant. “I felt horrible.” But abortions are illegal in Kenya, and back-room ones are costly and often unsafe. By the time she had enough money to pay for one, it was too late.
Her family refused to talk to her when they found out, blaming her for what had happened, despising her for bearing the child of an unknown man from a different ethnicity. Jaqueline retreated into herself; only the thoughts of her four children kept her going.
She had decided to give the baby away. But on the day of the birth, the baby’s fierce crying caught her attention. “I thought, which baby is this? And then I saw this bundle. And there she was, the pinkest, sweetest little thing with the loudest voice, so tiny and so strong. That changed everything for me immediately.”
Despite her love for Princess, it took Jaqueline years to regain her sense of self and the mental strength she now imparts to women who have had similarly traumatic experiences. For a year, she attended counselling sessions where she met other rape survivors, many of whom had children as a result. One day she paid a visit to one of the women who had conceived a child from rape and was shocked by what she found – the woman’s daughter was so abused she barely dared talk to her mother. And there were others: children who were scavenging in the gutters, while their mothers drank to forget their trauma, neglected children, undernourished children, children sold into labor.
Realizing she had to first assist the mothers who were ‘bleeding inside’, as she referrd to these women who had children from rape, Jaqueline took it upon herself to organize group therapy sessions for survivors of sexual violence, particularly women who struggled to accept and raise children born from rape.
What started as weekly afternoon meetings at the women’s homes has grown into a big organization with activities outside of Nairobi, where it started. Grace Agenda, as Jaqueline called the organization, has provided hundreds of rape survivors the psychological support the government failed to deliver.
Jaqueline has counselled up to 70 women over the years. Determined, she has never allowed rebuke, anger or disillusionment to deter her. “It’s been a long walk.” She has not been able to save everyone - last year, one of the women she was in contact with committed suicide. “We are all acquainted with trauma”, Jaqueline said. “ She just lost hope.”
Since President Kenyatta announced that a fund for “restorative justice” will be set, Jaqueline feels she has at last come closer to achieving one of the goals she and her organization have been advocating -- government acknowledgement of the plight of the post-election rape survivors as well as compensation and support.
While the Kenyan government compensated people who were displaced at the time, many survivors of sexual violence have been all but forgotten. “So many survivors of sexual violence have not been taken care of”, Jaqueline said. “Yet their husbands have left them, they have been kicked out of their home. They want to be recognized and they’d like to have ongoing social and medical support as well as support for the children.”
Police reforms and better post-abortion care for women raped in conflict or by family members are also necessary, she said. “And we want to see some prosecutions, at least of those who were in command of security forces involved in the rapes.”
The children, however, are Jaqueline’s main concern. As she talks about the antics of her youngest daughter, and how the bubbly girl has conquered the hearts of her family, her animated account came to a sudden halt when she recalled her daughter’s question about why she did not have a father. Of course you do, Jaqueline responded, we just don’t know where he is. “I had to chew my tongue and lips the first time I said this. It was not easy.”
To protect her daughter, Jaqueline has decided not to pursue her attacker. “What would be the benefit of taking him to court? Payment for the abuse or for my daughter? I don’t know if I would want to take my daughter through all that just for me to get justice and make him pay for this atrocity.”
One day her daughter will need to learn the truth, and Jaqueline dreads the thought. But she is determined to tell Princess herself before the girl reaches her teens. “I am really happy I had her. Everything worked out for good for me. But no child should have to go through that.” DM
Birgit Schwarz is a journalist and senior press officer at Human Rights Watch.
Photo: Two children stand together after a heavy rain falls at a temporary shelter for around 19,000 displaced people during post-election violence in Eldoret in this February 7, 2008 file photo. REUTERS/Georgina Cranston/Files.